Life is not fair. To wit, Neil Marshall’s new Hellboy reboot was probably doomed from the start. Series predecessors had set the bar hellishly high, leaving the new production very little wiggle room to differentiate itself from the original except through its R-rating and gratuitous cartoon violence. In the process, however, Marshall missed what made the material so engaging in the first place.
The opinion isn’t ours alone. After one weekend in multiplexes around the world, this new Hellboy is turning out to be a turkey of epic proportions.
Where did it all go wrong? It’s been 15 years since Guillermo del Toro got his whimsical hands on the eponymous cult comic-book character and his surreal world, in which literal forces of evil are plotting to take over, while the U.S. government secretly recruits its own monsters and misfits to fight them. Del Toro promptly made all this his own. The Academy Award-winning Mexican filmmaker crafted two auteur installments of a projected trilogy—Hellboy (2004) and Hellboy II: The Golden Army (’08)—before studio suits in their uninformed wisdom pulled the plug and rebuilt with a new creative team.
But del Toro’s aesthetic had already marked Hellboy’s world. His aesthetic was Hellboy’s world for a generation of moviegoers. As much as comic-book purists grumbled about certain plot liberties (Hellboy’s creator, Mike Mignola, was not one of them; he was well-pleased with the author’s work), the coherence of del Toro’s visual imagination placed his Hellboy films on the same shelf as his Oscar-winning features, Pan’s Labyrinth (’06) and The Shape of Water (’17).
Above all, del Toro’s leading actor owned the role. The great Ron Perlman balanced Hellboy’s supernatural origins, immense power and adolescent insouciance. It didn’t hurt that del Toro gave him time to breathe. We got to glimpse his home life, lounging around with lots of cats.
Enter Neil Marshall and his new Hellboy, David Harbour. The Stranger Things star is a passable demon spawn. In an alternate reality, one in which Perlman had pursued a career in plumbing rather acting, Harbour might even be the iconic Hellboy. But it’s already been done, and Perlman had far better material with which to work and create.
The reboot suffers from pacing problems, poorly developed characters and awful CGI effects (here’s looking at you, Ben Daimio). The villains tend to be nondescript giants and middling monsters. There’s gore. It’s superfluous to the script. The film wouldn’t have suffered with a PG-13 rating.
One of the film’s few bright spots is Ian McShane, who shines as Professor Broom, Hellboy’s adoptive father. The secret to McShane’s success: He’s allowed to play a different kind of father figure than John Hurt’s Broom. In del Toro’s 2004 film, Hurt played Broom as a thoughtful sage; McShane’s turn is, naturally, more aggressive (and foul-mouthed). It’s unusual, and it works.
It’s not a bad movie. It is a B-movie, though. (The casting of Milla Jovovich as the Blood Queen should’ve been fans’ first indication that the production would be more Uwe Boll than Werner Herzog.) And it’s not the Hellboy movie we needed. We needed a third and final Guillermo del Toro/Ron Perlman romp.